On the first day of Taobao Christmas


Taobao, the Chinese shopping site that combines eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba, recently got a lot easier for foreigners to use. As Sjaak documented in his Taobao buying adventures a few years ago, most foreigners use an agency that takes payment via Paypal, purchases your babies, and forwards them to you via DHL or airmail. Even foreigners fortunate enough to be in China withdraw money at an ATM, deposit in a Chinese bank account (or buy scratch off value cards), transfer money to Alipay, and then pay for babies – plus a week to set it all up. In short, even with Chrome’s built in translation it’s very difficult for foreigners to shop Taobao.

Sometime late this year, likely around the Alibaba IPO, Taobao started accepting foreign Credit cards as a payment source. Jelmer, second hacker camp participant and now resident hacker, was the first to point this out. I signed up and ordered a ton of stuff that’s raining in over the holidays.

The basic process:
1. Register for a Taobao Account. If you are inside China it is best to use a VPN that shows you outside China. We used a Tokyo exit point.
2. Verify your cell phone number. If you are inside China on a VPN it is still OK to use your Chinese number.
3. Buy some babies and checkout. You will be asked to set a new Alipay password.
4. Near the top of the Alipay payment source page select the last option of the drop down: international payment sources.
5. Enter a credit card and make payment. If you have a Verified by Visa password or some other garbage you will have to do it your first few purchases.

That’s “it”, however as almost no sellers ship outside China you still need to be there, have a friend there, or beg Suzie Shipper to freight forward for you. I’m lucky, and will be here a while on business so let’s get to the shopping.

Most of my holiday Taobao purchases are food related. You might even infer some homesickness by the large number of hometown food imports. First up, this lovely deli meat slicer, $40. You’ll find out why as supplies for the DP deli roll in over the coming days.


And here’s some extra crunchy super chunk Skippy peanut butter, about $5 with next day shipping. It’s not that there’s no peanut butter in China, even small stores have American brands, but the super chunk is a rare beast.


No, we didn’t order 6 liters of shelf stable whipping cream, but we got it. This one will have to go back to Beijing, a bit of a pain.


A six pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. At $5 per bottle plus $3 shipping we’re much better off going to City Super in Shatin, Hong Kong and grabbing them for $2. This is our first Taobao fail.


Corn tortillas, $3. Not frozen as advertised (err… translated…), though they are cold in Styrofoam (yuck) with an icepack.


Finally, two jars of Turkish sweet paprika paste, $6 each + $1.60 overnight shipping. Needlessly wrapped in a ton of Styrofoam. This is kind of a weird one, I like to use a tablespoon in pressure cooker risotto and a quarter cup in tomato mother sauce. Hungarian paprika would be better, but I couldn’t find it.

First day haul of Taobaomas was pretty good. This stuff shipped from as far north as Beijing, and arrived in under 24 hours at an average shipping cost of $2 per package. Pretty amazing.

Packaging was overkill and I’m apprehensive about how much Styrofoam will be used to package all the perishables that will arrive in the coming days.

Keep an eye out every day this week for an update on what rolls in. If you have a Taobao challenge post it in the comments and we’ll try to find it!

Merry Taobaomas!

Join the Conversation


  1. I would never eat food imported from china, there are way too many risks of being contaminated with anything. Can’t even tell if what you are eating is the real thing.

    They kill their own people feeding them bad milk : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Chinese_milk_scandal (melamine in milk)

    Toxic toothpaste from china :


    And so many other examples ..

    There are a millions reasons to stay away from their food. Whether the made it, imported it , or exported it , they just do not care what is inside.

    Good Luck.

    1. Yikes. There are certainly high profile cases of food problems in China, and similarly high profile punishments, but in my experience in Shenzhen I have never had an issue. It’s certainly not something I think about during daily life in China.

    2. David,

      you do realise your comment is quite biased, or even racist? Yes there are other norms for food safety in China and some rules are less then ideal. But the occurence of incidents does not prove that ‘they’ are out to poison the whole population.
      I guess you are quite happy with these prejudices and will say ‘I told you so’ when you read about another incident, as you might never leave your own comfort zone. Untill your lettuce gets infected with some superbug e.coli.

      1. Jelle,

        From the Wikipedia article David linked to:

        “Due to poor animal husbandry, production and storage, the demand for milk far outstripping supplies, and the use of other potentially harmful chemical additives such as preservatives and hydrogen peroxide has been reported by independent media as being commonplace. Quality tests can be falsified with additives: peroxide is added to prevent milk going bad; industrial vegetable oil is emulsified and added to boost fat levels; whey is used to increase lactose content.[21][22] However, the procurement chain is also implicated—milk agents are often politically well connected.[21] Farmers report salespeople had, for years, been visiting farms in dairy areas hawking “protein powder” additives, which would often be delivered in unmarked brown paper bags of 25 kilograms (55 lb) each. A new version of “protein powder”, capable of fooling dairies as to protein content, started being peddled approximately two years ago.[clarification needed] Thus, farmers either added melamine contaminant unwittingly, or turned a blind eye to milk adulteration to ensure their milk was not rejected.[22]”

        “Other norms for food safety in China” is a huge understatement. My Chinese acquaintances are indeed pretty vocal regarding their anger about the food safety situation in China.

      2. If one doesn’t travel, there is no reason to believe that another part of the world may actually exist and maybe even get by. Why bother eating food from China if the world ends at the shores of your country, and if you believe that the small sampling of news stories is truly representative of the experience of billions.

      3. John,

        Well if your particular Chinese acquaintances say it, then it must be representative of the experience of billions, and it clearly validates the Wikipedia entry then too.

  2. … well at least in China they do very actively recycle the styrofoam – so less guilt feelings required :)

    As to your challenge – not food related – but I have been unable to find any generic tool racks – you know screw a shelf full of holes to the wall for all your screwdrivers and pliers etc. I can give you picture links to one I have/had if you want.

      1. I’ve got one of them at home, pretty sure they are still around somewhere, though can’t say I’ve really looked recently.

    1. Yeah, I love the stuff :) I’m 99.99% sure it’s real. Fakes are high volume stuff (FT232 chips), and while I love paprika paste, I doubt there’s enough volume to justify counterfeiting it :)

    1. We just finished moving to a new office with a window vent for it. Was far too disgusting to use in the old office :) Will have it up and going soon.

    1. If you put the TaoBao pages through Google or Bing Translate, the ‘items’ or ‘goods’ (or something like that) comes up as ‘Babies’ – obviously some not so great translation somewhere.

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